4 Photos – Seeds for the Next Novel

At a small French cafe in 2010, Time & Regret was born. My husband and I discussed the plot all evening, the twists and turns becoming more elaborate as the bottle of wine disappeared. We took lots of pictures that summer, some of which offered inspiration for Lies Told in Silence; others are now providing ideas and texture for my next novel, Time & Regret.

Here’s the premise: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband, Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather’s WWI diaries along with a puzzling note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret he kept hidden for more than seventy years.

Hotel in HonfleurThis first photo is the place where my husband and I stayed in Honfleur, a small town across the Seine from Le Havre. In Time & Regret, Grace stays here for the first few days of her trip to France.

“Located in a grand three-storey house with imposing columns on either side of the front door, the hotel looked elegant and, after stepping inside, I rang the bell and looked around. The room just beyond the front hall was full of ornate antiques and overgrown plants, Persian rugs and gilded ceilings. In the living room an enormous mirror filled one wall, its frame decorated with coloured glass in the shape of vines. Flanking the mirror were blue Chinese vases, at least three feet tall, etched with red, white and pink flowers. Opposite the mirror on a marble-topped chest of drawers was a chess set, a vase full of blood-red roses, a turquoise urn and a brass lamp. I could not decide whether this arrangement was contrived or random. Scattered along the other walls, as if it was important to fill as much of the room as possible, were high-backed chairs with winged sides, their wooden legs carved and gilded, and their backs and seats covered in muted floral patterns. A baby grand piano stood in the far corner, topped with an old gramophone.

Since no one had yet arrived, I rang the bell again and stepped further into the living room. Two large doorways invited exploration, one led into the solarium where tables were set with crisp white cloths and potted geraniums filled every window ledge, the other into the dining room with a mahogany table and matching sideboard, three huge canvases and the marble bust of a black warrior above the fireplace. Enchanting, in a bizarre way.”

Musee de la Grande GuerreMusee de la Grande Guerre in Peronne was a wonderful if sobering experience. Simple displays made for more impact.

“Peronne was a larger town, its streets and squares decked with hanging baskets while citizens strolled about enjoying the sunshine. Housed in a medieval chateau, the museum’s collection was laid out sparingly for maximum impact. On the floor surrounded by ten-inch wooden frames were full uniforms and kits for French, British, Canadian and German soldiers. Similar frames housed rifles, ammunition clips and light trench mortars, medical instruments, ambulance supplies, and signalling equipment. Further on, a display of camouflage techniques showed a hollowed out tree trunk used as an observation post and a range of ingenious materials to disguise artillery and command posts.  Along the walls were posters exhorting civilians to donate to the cause or help in some other fashion.”

WWII American Govt certificateIntending to explore the areas around Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy where her grandfather fought, Grace stays at a hotel called Chateau Noyelle. Exploring the Chateau’s salon while waiting for cup of coffee, Grace finds this framed certificate.

“Stopping to order an espresso, I looked around the bar at comfortable chairs organised in small groupings for intimate conversations before dinner or perhaps a reading retreat on a rainy day. Large windows embraced by silk overlooked the front yard. I approached a display of sepia photos next to a tall curio cabinet and peered at the first one, clearly a shot of the building before it had become a hotel. Two women holding lacy umbrellas were in front of the chateau wearing long skirts and white blouses with wide sleeves and tight cuffs. Nothing alluring about those outfits, I thought. Beside them was a young boy holding a hoop in his hand, a straw hat on the ground nearby. Below the picture a silver plaque said Chateau Noyelle, 1879.

Beside that photo was a framed certificate bearing the American coat of arms. Curious, I bent my head to read the inscription: The President of the United States has directed me to express to Andre Justin-Gabriel Constant the gratitude and appreciation of the American people for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from the enemy. Underneath was the signature of Dwight Eisenhower as General of the Army. My imagination began to work, spies lurking in the corridors, an underground passage through the woods, secret doors behind . . .

“Your espresso, Madame.” “

WWI Craters and Shell holesTime & Regret is told through Grace’s voice, through her grandfather Martin’s voice and through the diary he kept. Bill Jackson, Michel Diotte and Pete Vanleuven are Martin’s friends. Butler is his commanding officer.

” “We’re gearing up for a major offensive,” said Captain Butler.

Martin was in the cellar of a house partially destroyed by shelling. He thought these brigade headquarters a distinct improvement over the dungeon HQ had occupied in December. Smelling of dried bat droppings and ancient slime, the air in that deep, dark space had created a feeling of doom as though the echoes of tortured screaming had only recently faded. He shivered, not from the cold but from the memory.

Jackson, Vanleuven and Diotte sat with Butler at a rickety table while Martin and the captain’s adjutant leaned against the wall. Rain slickers hung from hooks next to the entrance dripping remnants of sleet onto a hard mud floor.

“There’s an enemy salient near St. Eloi.” Butler stabbed at the map. “We’re part of the force ordered to eliminate it.”

“What are those, sir?” Diotte pointed to several numbered circles on the map.

“Craters.”

Pete scratched the rash at the base of his throat. “Who occupies them?”

“That’s the problem,” said Butler. “We thought we occupied four and five and could attack craters two and three from those positions. Turns out the Germans still hold them. Our battalions couldn’t tell one crater from another. Fucking mess. We go in tomorrow night to relieve the Sixth.”

Captain Butler spent the next two hours explaining the operation and answering questions. Trench reinforcements would be the first objective, their brigade augmented for this task by two thousand reserve troops. A series of bombardments and infantry attacks would follow with the aim of securing four of the largest craters.

“Fucking mess is right,” Martin said to Bill as they slogged through the mud, the wind whipping sleet against their cheeks. He wiped his eyes and squinted. “Here’s the turn.”

“Doesn’t look promising,” Bill said.

“If the Sixth has lost more than five hundred you can imagine what we’re in for.”

April 10, 1916

Diotte has been wounded. Bill saw the stretcher bearers take him off but we’ve had no confirmation. Can’t leave my post to find out. I’ve prayed that Michel will be all right. Feels strange praying out here in the midst of what can only be described as hell.

April 12, 1916

Severe enemy bombardment. Spent the day reassuring men holding the line.

April 14, 1916

Butler said that aerial photos show all craters still in German hands. Lost Jimmy and Snowy last night. Both went down in the same scramble up the far side of a crater. Wilson and I dug them out but we couldn’t get any medics in time to save them. Snowy knew I was with him at the end. We don’t seem to make any progress. Communications often fail to get through so we are uncoordinated. No sleep. “

As they say – a picture is worth a thousand words.

WWI Diaries Tell A Poignant Tale

While researching for my novels Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence and my work-in-progress called Time & Regret, I’ve come across many WWI diaries written by soldiers both young and not-so-young, by those in the infantry, the artillery, the signals corps and even the chaplaincy. Some entries are mundane, others full of the tragic circumstances of war.

WWI Trench lines in Northern FranceTime & Regret tells the story of Grace Hansen who reads her grandfather’s diaries and decides to visit France in order to discover more about the man who raised her and the puzzling mystery he left behind when he died. The story contains many diary entries and I am grateful for the many soldiers who left behind their stories and to those who have made them public.

In one of the earlier chapters, Grace is in a small town in northern France, she’s just had dinner and is reflecting on both her travels and her grandfather’s diaries. Now that she’s in the places where he had been as a young man, Grace refers to him as Martin.

I had been in Ypres for three days visiting nearby towns and villages mentioned in my grandfather’s diaries. Each stop offered glimpses of French tradition: churches with tall, arched windows, chateaus set amidst splendid gardens, remnants of medieval walls and turrets and wide town squares hosting weekly markets full of brightly-coloured vegetables and oozing cheeses.

Wherever I stopped, I checked Martin’s diaries. I thought of him now as Martin not Grandpa, as though he were a character in an unfolding story rather than a man I had known for more than thirty years. From Grandmama’s photos I knew he had broad shoulders on a narrow frame and brown hair, his face angular rather than handsome as though waiting for him to grow into its contours, but I had no sense of whether he sought solitude or the company of others, was athletic or preferred books, told stories or would rather listen. He was twenty-one, far from the man he would become.

Bailleul, Abbeville, Hazebrouke, Eecke, Dranoutre, Vierstaat, Passchendaele, Cassel—all were places mentioned in the diaries. Now that I had visited them and the unfolding green countryside and the memorials and cemeteries marking war’s convoluted path, I felt closer to Martin, the words of his diary poignant with grief. So many names, so many young men who never lived. This thought reverberated like an unending barrage.

Near Eecke where Martin camped for a few days before reaching the front, I had stood on a hill next to fields of rich farmland and looked out across the gentle rise and fall of earth seeing no drama in the countryside, only a quiet sense of long tradition as though little had changed for hundreds of years. Just east of Eecke, on the road to Mont des Cats, was a wide, open space and with Martin’s diary in hand, I had imagined a sea of small white tents, men hurrying in various directions while others examined blisters, lathered up for shaving, wrote letters home or slouched against their duffle bags. I had conjured men flinching at the first sounds of bombardment, fear registering in a twist of gut or dry swallow. Untested men, many with the soft fuzz of new beards and slim waists of recent boyhood.

At the top of a hill near Vierstaat, I had spread a blanket beneath a tree with a view of a wide plain that in Martin’s time was gouged with craters and strung with barbed wire, a plain full of misery and death, rattling with machine-gun fire and mortars, oozing smoke and blood and sweat. That day the view had been peaceful. Purple irises and tall, green grasses had swayed in fresh breezes that chased away rain clouds. Birds had whistled and aspens had shivered overhead. I had reread an excerpt photocopied from a soldier’s memoir and felt anew the weary despair and grinding horror of war and imagined Martin as one of them, rotating off the field having lost men to one skirmish or another, little bits of his own humanity left behind with each passing week.

Ypres and Passchendaele had affected me the most. Listening to the haunting echoes of the Last Post beneath Menin Gate, its walls etched with thousands upon thousands of names brought the war close. Walking through the museum at Passchendaele, full of pictures and memorabilia from 1917, I wept at the utter devastation resulting from three months of battle for nothing except the skeletons of a few scorched trees remained, an entire town obliterated. Walking to and from the museum, I had cringed as name after name of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice echoed through loudspeakers with ghostly eeriness.

Who did Martin write the diaries for? When I first read them, this question did not occur to me but now I asked it repeatedly, wondering whether he wrote to document the weeks or pass the time or console himself. Perhaps Martin had needed a safety valve for all the pain and frustration. I could only speculate.

My dessert half-eaten, I picked up the map. Tomorrow I planned to drive towards Arras where I had reserved a room in an old chateau near Noyelle-Vion. Martin had been in the vicinity on two separate occasions. According to his diary, fighting in that area had been even more intense.

Christmas 1915 – as relayed by Frederick George Scott

F.G. ScottWhile preparing a post about the Vimy Memorial dedication ceremony, I came across a poem written by Frederick George Scott. In 1914, at the age of 53, Scott enlisted with the Canadian Army. According to Wikipedia, he served as the senior chaplain to the 1st Canadian division. He was both an Anglican priest and a poet.

Project Gutenberg offers Scott’s book The Great War as I Saw It, a full account of his service during WWI. For an earlier post about this book, click here.

Chapter IX relates his first Christmas of WWI and it seems fitting to include a bit here. Scott had decided to spend that day with the men who were in the front lines.

“As soon as I could cross the bridge, I made my way to the trenches which the 16th Battalion were taking over. They were at a higher level and were not in a bad condition. Further up the line there was a barn known as St. Quentin’s Farm, which for some reason or other, although it was in sight of the enemy, had not been demolished and was used as a billet. I determined therefore to have a service of Holy Communion at midnight, when the men would all have come into the line and settled down. About eleven o’clock I got things ready. The officers and men had been notified of the service and began to assemble. The barn was a fair size and had dark red brick walls. The roof was low and supported by big rafters. The floor was covered with yellow straw about two feet in depth. The men proceeded to search for a box which I could use as an altar. All they could get were three large empty biscuit tins. These we covered with my Union Jack and white linen cloth. A row of candles was stuck against the wall, which I was careful to see were prevented from setting fire to the straw. The dull red tint of the brick walls, the clean yellow straw, and the bright radiance of our glorious Union Jack made a splendid combination of colour. It would have been a fitting setting for a tableau of the Nativity.

The Highlanders assembled in two rows and I handed out hymn books. There were many candles in the building so the men were able to read. It was wonderful to hear in such a place and on such an occasion, the beautiful old hymns, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The men sang them lustily and many and varied were the memories of past Christmases that welled up in their thoughts at that time.”

Later he offered a second communion service for those men who had been on duty the night before.

Near Ypres in April 1915, he wrote Requiescant:

In lonely watches night by night,
Great visions burst upon my sight,
For down the stretches of the sky,
The hosts of dead go marching by.

Strange ghostly banners o’er them float,
Strange bugles sound an awful note,
And all their faces and their eyes
Are lit with starlight from the skies.

The anguish and the pain have passed
And peace hath come to them at last,
But in the stern looks linger still
The iron purpose and the will.

Dear Christ, who reign’st above the floor
Of human tears and human blood,
A weary road these men have trod,
O house them in the home of God.

Wishing you joy for this Christmas season and all good things in 2014.